Despite the fact that there was a political revolution going on, VIU art students Angela Marston and Robin Erickson had no hesitations when they decided to go on the Egypt Art and Culture Field Study to Egypt and Jordan as a part of their Arts 355 Painting IV course during the summer semester.
Marston says that when she first heard about the trip through VIU professor and trip coordinator Jane Cole, “I just knew I was going to go.” Erickson felt much the same way. Erickson says friends and family tried to discourage her from participating, fearful of the uprising, but she’d wanted to see Egypt since visiting a museum display of King Tut’s tomb in Seattle, and so there was “no question” when it came to deciding to go.
Both Marston and Erickson became involved in the trip by way of Cole, who was their professor during the summer 2012 semester. The 16-day trip, which took place Apr. 24 to May 10, was the subject of their coursework, and Marston and Erickson’s assignments were based on influences from the trip. Their individual paintings, which will be displayed in the Upper Cafeteria (bldg. 300) until the end of Sept., are inspired by photographs they took on their tours: of the people they encountered and the sights they visited.
“We saw an enormous amount of stuff,” Marston says. The itinerary was tight and included ten flights around Egypt and Jordan and a four-day cruise up part of the Nile, all accomplished in only two weeks. Each day was full of tours and travel, and Marston and Erickson say they had little time to relax as they wanted to take every opportunity to see the historical places and the ancient artwork.
Their first few days were spent in the north, beginning with tours of the Great Pyramids of Giza and the Great Sphinx. They travelled to Alexandria to see Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa and the Lighthouse of Alexandria, and also visited the sight of Cleopatra’s sunken palace. Between tours they drove through the skinny city roads in their tour bus, frantically snapping photos of life in the old streets.
Marston, who contributed two paintings to the exhibition, chose one of the photos she took on the bus in Alexandria as the inspiration for one of her paintings. The large-scale piece of a yellow taxi in what looks to be a parking garage was based on a photograph she hadn’t planned on using, but when she was looking through her pictures while deciding what to paint she was drawn to the scene. The course focused on the application of different layers of glazes to achieve a variety of textures and levels of depth in the paintings, and Marston’s choice suited the criteria perfectly. She started by painting the scene in basic shades of black, white, and grey, and then proceeded to add to it with coloured glazes, creating an impression of depth in both space and colour. Marston, who is passionate about Coast Salish art and works on her own Coast Salish prints, carvings, and paintings outside of school, says the assignment was her first time experimenting with different textures in her paintings and she enjoyed the outcome so much that she plans to use the techniques in future artwork.
Erickson also chose photographs she took in Alexandria as subjects for her paintings. She has four pieces in the exhibition, two of which were inspired by scenes she snapped during the day she spent in the ancient city. One is a colourful glaze piece of laundry blowing on a clothesline. The other, which has already sold, is of a yellow rowboat resting peacefully in the water. Erickson started out by painting a simple green and white picture and creating the impression of depth and movement in the water by adding layers of coloured glaze. She has been taking art classes at VIU for many years and is used to painting with acrylic, oil, and watercolour paints, so the class on glazing was enjoyable for her. She says Cole’s critiques and suggestions helped her to develop the rowboat painting and gave her the ability to make it into a “better picture.” Erickson says she loves the way the painting turned out, and is “so happy” with the balance of texture and colour she learned how to create.
After exploring Alexandria and the sights of Giza, the group flew down to visit the great temples of Luxor. Marston and Erickson were amazed by the massiveness of the columns and how each one was covered in hieroglyphics hand-painted in extreme detail. They also toured the Valley of Kings, an experience that Marston names as one of her favourite parts of the trip. She says she has wanted to visit the site since she was a child and that it was “amazing to be in the tomb and see all the things I’ve seen on National Geographic.” The group was only allowed to tour certain tombs because of rules protecting the artifacts from the effects of humidity from tourists’ breath. They weren’t permitted to take photographs, but Marston and Erickson clearly remember the tombs they did see, which they say are symmetrically decorated with carvings and paintings that tell the story of a pharaoh’s life and are packed with the objects he would need in the after-world.
Following the tour of the Valley of Kings the group took a bus over to Queen Hatshepsut’s temple, which Erickson names as one of her favourite experiences. Long before the trip, Erickson studied Egyptian art history and has done a great deal of research on the famous queen regent. The temple was a place she had looked forward to visiting, and she says it was “beautiful and serene,” while at the same time “mind boggling” to see something so ancient and meaningful. Before leaving for Egypt, Erickson decided she wanted to dedicate one of her assignments to Queen Hatshepsut, and after seeing the temple in person she decided to paint the ruler so she “looks like a real person but not quite,” using the skills she learned in class. She says it was “frustrating” and the process took a long time, but the queen is pictured as she intended: alive enough to be identifiable as human and statue enough to rule forever. Erickson also included actual sand from Egypt in her painting, which adds both to the fundamental aim of achieving texture and to the authenticity of the piece.
The cruise up the Nile began after the visit to Hapshetsuts’s temple. As the boat took them down to Aswan the group stopped along the way to tour famous sights, including the city of Edfu and the Abu Simbel temples. They visited market-places in villages near the ancient sights where the economic livelihood of the village population relies on tourism. At one point during the cruise there was a sandstorm that made it dangerous for the group to go outside, causing a few of their stops to be cancelled and blocking the sights along the shore. However, they were still able to see certain places along the Nile, and a photograph Erickson took of an elementary school on the bank inspired one of her paintings.
When the cruise was over, the group flew to Cairo with the intention of visiting the Cairo museum to see the display of King Tut’s tomb, but, because of a huge political demonstration outside the site near the hotel they were supposed to stay at, plans changed. Instead, they stayed the night in a luxurious six-star hotel in another part of the city. Marston and Erickson say Cairo was more modern and much wealthier than other cities they had visited. The contrast between the extreme poverty and prosperity throughout the country had an effect on Marston, and it inspired her second painting, a piece picturing the faces of three women. To the right of them Marston has painted stars, which she says are like those that are painted on the ceilings of the tombs. To the left is a row of three individual handprints, which Marston added to represent the Egyptian president and his exploitation of the working people. The painting succeeds in achieving both fundamental depth, using the glaze layering technique, and emotional depth, by way of Marston’s use of symbolism.
The second part of the trip was an optional four-day stay in Jordan, and both Marston and Erickson took part. They visited the ancient city of Petra, toured a mosaic-making institution in Madaba, and journeyed up Mt. Nebo. The trip ended with a day spent at the Dead Sea where the group had time to bob around in the buoyant salt water before preparing to fly home.
Marston and Erickson say the field study was the trip of a lifetime. They truly enjoyed everything they experienced and they saw everything they wanted to see and more.
“I have so many images, I could paint Egypt forever,” Erickson says.
They both say they would like to continue to travel and visit other artistic wonders in different parts of the world. Evidently, travelling to a country in the middle of a political uprising was well worth the risk. Both Marston and Erickson returned unharmed and newly equipped with lasting knowledge, inspiration, and memories that will no doubt serve them for countless artistic projects in the future.